Bob Dylan’s 1986 album, Knocked Out Loaded, would be a surefire pick for his worst album ever were it not for one bizarre fact: it includes what may actually be the best song that he ever wrote. I know that is an extreme suggestion given the unbelievable heights that he scaled in the 1960s and 1970s, but “Brownsville Girl” is an exceptional song. Let’s see if we can build this case.
I was in Denver a couple of weekends ago, having drinks with my friend Charles (who has thrown a lot of remarks into the comments section of this blog over the past six months). Charles mentioned to me that he’d recently heard this song, “this eleven-minute epic about a Gregory Peck movie”, that was the most surreally bizarre thing that he’d ever heard. Did I know it? Yes. Absolutely.
I remember the first time that I heard this song. I’d been disappointed by Knocked Out Loaded for a few days, and had played the first side a few times but not the second. I’m not sure why I didn’t flip it over. Finally I played “Brownsville Girl” for the first time and it literally blew me away. Here was the most improbable gem ever. Every single element of “the bad 1980s Dylan” could be found on this song – the horns, the back-up singers – but it just all seemed to work. It was this miraculous thing where Dylan keeps producing songs and wrecking them for years with all this unnecessary extra stuff, and then, suddenly, everything just falls into place. It’s as if all the disastrous mixes of the past few albums were just preparation for this incredible epic thing. The most Dylan song of all Dylan songs.
My wife reminds me that I played this for her on one of our first dates. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t that much of a Dylan fan at that point, but it seems that I was still a fan of this song. It is one of her favourites as well, and I’m sure that’s part of why we’re still together after twenty years – I can’t imagine that I could be with someone who wasn’t fascinated by this song.
I’ve played “Brownsville Girl” for dozens of people over the years. Many quit on it. They get bored. It’s too long. They don’t engage with the story. Those are people that I don’t play music for any longer. I’m really only interested in the people who hear this and who lean into it wondering “what in the world can this song possibly be about?”. I’m still wondering.
I can’t get WordPress to embed the song because it’s not hosted on a site that they like. Click through to a new window to listen to this song if you’ve never heard it.
“Brownsville Girl” is one of Dylan’s co-authored songs, something that he hadn’t done much of in a decade since collaborating with Jacques Levy on much of Desire. This one is co-written with the great American playwright Sam Shepard. It is seamless. Read Shepard. Listen to Dylan. Play “Brownsville Girl” and tell me that one line or another is definitely the work of one of these men. It’s impossible to do so, the integration of their points-of-view is complete.
Shepard, of course, toured with Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and wrote a book about it. They were at least friendly, if not friends. Shepard, it seems to me, gets Dylan. He has better insights – insights that seem truer to me – than almost any other writer I have read on Dylan this year. This is from Rolling Thunder Logbook:
“One thing that gets me about Dylan’s songs is how they conjure up images, whole scenes that are being played out in full colour as you listen. He’s an instant filmmaker. Probably not the same scenes occur in the same way to everyone listening tot he same song, but I’d like to know if anyone sees the same small, rainy, green park and the same bench and the same yellow light and the same pair of people as I do all coming from “A Simple Twist of Fate”. Or the same beach in “Sara” or the same bar in “Hurricane” or the same cabin in “Hollis Brown” or same window in “It Ain’t Me” or the same table and the same ashtray in “Hattie Carroll” or same valley in “One More Cup of Coffee”. How do pictures become words? Or how do words become pictures? And how do they cause you to feel something? That’s a miracle.”
Reading this I was struck by how consistent the mental images are that I have for some Dylan songs. In “Hattie Carroll”, to use on of Shepard’s examples, I always see that ashtray in a dimly lit bar in an open space on the second floor of a hotel, with stairs going down that run parallel to the bar. I see the initial action in “Hurricane” from a bird’s eye point-of-view, from a walkway that circumnavigates the bar like the saloon in a western. I don’t know about you – but I always see it the exact same way, no matter what Dylan does the song musically. I’d never noticed that before.
Shepard, of course, is exactly correct. Dylan is an incredibly imagistic songwriter. “Brownsville Girl” is one of the most imagistic of all of his songs. For me, this song is an “instant film”, to use Shepard’s term. It’s a Ridley Scott film. It’s Thelma and Louise, but with Dylan as the male lead. Take these lines, for example.
I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
(I see a dusty low-angle shot with nothing but pale blue sky in the top half of the movie frame. The Ford, of course, a pick-up truck from the 1960s. Blue and rust.)
Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust
She said, “Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while”
(Ruby wears jeans and a white shirt with holes in it. Here eyes are wrinkled and her skin is tanned. This is shot from behind the arriving car, with a reverse point-of-view shot from Ruby)
Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour
I was crossin’ the street when shots rang out
(It’s the pompadour that sells it. Small Texas border town that hasn’t changed at all since the 1950s. You could film a remake of The Last Picture Show there.)
Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind
(More Scorsese now than Ridley Scott. Night, wet hair, no umbrella, a leather jacket with the collar turned up.)
The whole song is this way. It may be the most visual thing that Dylan has ever written because it is so incredibly mythic. The quick shifts from iconic images (“rolling up in a trail of dust”) to the incredibly specific (“a pompadour”) allow us to build the images quickly. To tell the story.
Bob Dylan isn’t simply an imagistic writer, though. He has a habit of writing some of the most aphoristic lines in the history of popular music. If you wanted to get a Dylan line tattooed on yourself, this song gives you the most choices. It’s Dylan’s Hamlet, an incredibly rich source of quotable lines. For instance, the most fatalistic line in any rock song ever has to be: “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”.
Of the seventeen (!) verses of this song, two play no part in driving the plot of the song, but simply outline a philosophy about life
Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass
But sometimes you just find yourself over the line
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. I could feel a whole lot better
If you were just here by my side to show me how
That line, “If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now”, is, by a wide margin, my single favourite Dylan line. I quote that, aloud and in my head, more than anything else he has ever written, particularly on those days when I am convinced that there is, indeed, no space left for original thinking. Then there’s this:
Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content
I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone
You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent
And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”
What an incredible verse that is. Both the first and third lines are exceptional statements of a Dylanesque philosophy. Indeed, Dylan made on-stage remarks akin to the convenience line while on tour in 1986 – you can tell that he was working this through.
When I was in high school the two writers that I was most interested in were Bob Dylan and e. e. cummings. I filled the end papers of my calculus book with Dylan quotes and my trig textbook with quotes by cummings (“they did not stop to think they died instead”). I was a pretentious kid, obviously. Yet all these years later I still recognize the beauty of some of these phrases. If I had a textbook, I’d write them into it.
I was going to write that this is the best Dylan story song, but I’m not one hundred per cent convinced that it actually tells a story. It is an epic, sure, but the story is fleeting and fragmentary.
The song has seventeen verses, and the chorus is sung four times. The first section includes six verses before the chorus (indeed, on first listening, you sort of assume that there will be no chorus). The second and third sections include four verses each. The final section is only three. The chorus, with all of its amazing power coming from the Queens of Rhythm, accelerates in frequency and velocity as the song goes along. The memory of the Brownsville girl, to whom the song is sung, increases in ferocity every time – it cannot be held back. The performance by Dylan’s back-up here is incredible. Intense. Moving. The three-part howl that they let out is blood-curdling. It gets me every time. On no other song does he use his support even half as well. They are a Greek chorus here, even dropping in their own commentary on the action (“Oh yeah?”).
Of the seventeen verses, six of them are about Gregory Peck and, specifically, his 1950 western The Gunfighter. The plot of the film is detailed exactly in the first three verses, particularly the conclusion in which gunfighter Jimmy Ringo is shot down by the cowardly Hunt Bromley.
The Gunfighter isn’t a great western – it is really only passable – but Shepard and Dylan make it positively mythic. Not only is the conclusion – in which Ringo insists that the town let Bromley go so that he too can meet his doom at the hands of “hungry kid trying to make a name for himself” – completely grandiose, but the narrator repeatedly sells the memory of the film (“I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in / And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain”). The segue from the film is directly to the Brownsville girl (“You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart / The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train”) and the relationship itself is established as akin to the Peck film – a betrayal on a grand scale.
As for the plot, what is there is clear but sketchy. It’s an easier thing to piece together than “Tangled Up in Blue”, but the details are not always set.
The couple meet in the painted desert. The travel to San Antonio and sleep at the Alamo. In Mexico, something happens that requires a doctor, and she disappears while he is trapped as a wanted man.
In the second section, the narrator travels with his new girlfriend to the home of Henry Porter, whom they never meet. They talk to Ruby.
In the third section the narrator is arrested for a crime that he didn’t commit (“I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran” – what an incredible line). His ex sees his picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune and she perjures herself to save him from prison.
The narrator stands in line to see a movie starring Gregory Peck.
That’s it. That’s the story. It’s not even entirely clear where the second section fits. I say he travels with his new girl, but it’s not exactly certain that that is true. Who is Henry Porter? We never learn (“The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter” – one of the best lines ever). Who is Ruby? We don’t know. Who is the Brownsville girl? After eleven minutes, we really don’t have much of an idea. I’m sure my Brownsville girl isn’t the same as yours anyway.
“Brownsville Girl” didn’t start life as “Brownsville Girl”. An earlier version of the song, then called “New Danville Girl”, was recorded during the sessions for Empire Burlesque, but given up on. Here’s that version:
That title, of course, refers to the Woody Guthrie song, “Danville Girl”.
Guthrie’s song is about a girl and a train. The key lyrics, at least as they relate to “Brownsville Girl”, are:
I rode her down to Danville town, got stuck on a Danville girl,
Bet your life she was a pearl, she wore that Danville curl.
She wore her hat on the back of her head like high tone people all do,
Very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.
I bid that gal adieu, poor boys, I bid that gal adieu,
The very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.
Shepard and Dylan borrow a fair bit from Guthrie here – specifically the curl/pearl rhyme – and the disappearance. Nothing in “Brownsville Girl” suggests that the woman is “high tone”, but imagining it does lend the song a certain nuance.
“New Danville Girl” isn’t as good as “Brownsville Girl”. It’s more stripped down. There are back-up singers, yes, but they’re not fierce and vocal and active. They don’t talk back. Dylan’t singing isn’t as strong, and the things that usually ruin a Dylan song – like the horns – are missed.
You can learn a lot about Dylan’s revisions from listening to the two versions back to back. Only two of the seventeen verses are exactly the same in the two versions, although a handful of them have only minor changes. I would argue that there isn’t a single verse in “New Danville Girl” that is superior to “Brownsville Girl” though, every single alteration is an improvement, some of them massive.
“Brownsville Girl” opens with a perfect phrase: “Well, there was this movie I seen one time”, where “New Danville Girl” stumbles out of the gate: “I wish I could remember that movie just a little bit better”. One is mythic, the other is faulting.
Some of the verses in the “New Danville Girl” version of the song are actually kind of awful, which makes me wonder why they were recorded. Compare these, with the “Brownville” version first:
Well, we drove that car all night into San Antone
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off
That version is haunting and dark and threatening, with just an interesting little bit of hesitation and cowardice. It builds a lot of character for the narrator. Now “New Danville”:
We drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, we fell out under the stars
Way down in Mexico you went out to see a doctor and you never came back
I stayed there a while til the whole place started feeling like Mars
This version is terrible – it lacks all of the poetry, and I have no idea what is meant by a place that starts to feel like Mars. I’m not sure Dylan and Shepard do either.
Even very minor changes make enormously huge differences. In “New Danville Girl” the location of Ruby is changed: “We could see Ruby in the window as we came rolling up in a trail of dust”. The mental image that is painted isn’t half as compelling as the woman hanging laundry. Other shifts in phrasing carry a lot of weight. For instance, the difference between “It was the best acting I saw anybody do” and “It was the best acting I ever saw you do” fills a vast expanse.
There is one entire verse from “New Danville Girl” that is absent from the later version. Where in “Brownsville Girl” we get the verse about Henry Porter not being named Henry Porter, in “New Danville Girl” Dylan and Shepard initially wrote:
It’s funny how people just want to believe what’s convenient
Nothing happens on purpose, it’s an accident if it happens at all
And everything that’s happening to us feels like it’s happening without our consent
While we’re busy talking back and forth to our shadows on an old stone wall
That’s not nearly as good a verse, but the one line (“Nothing happens on purpose”) has a real mystical charm to it.
One of the odd synchronicities of this blog is that I’ve been listening to this song all week, just when Dylan’s lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” have been auctioned for $2 million. The original version of “New Danville Girl” lacks the brilliant last line of “Brownsville Girl” (“Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down” – maybe the best line in a song that is filled with nothing but great lines). The original ends rather flatly, rhyming “what part I played” with:
But that was a long time ago and it was made in the shade
Awful. Funnily, though, the phrase “you got it made in the shade” appears in the original hand-written lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone”. It seems Dylan has been trying to use that line for two decades.
Of course, he rhymes “made” and “shade” in “Tombstone Blues”.
“Brownsville Girl” has been my favourite Dylan song for almost thirty years. Is it the best? Well, it’s my favourite. If I could have only one, this is the one that I would keep. For years I sort of dreamed about a live version of it. So imagine my surprise when I learned by doing this project that one exists. At his show on August 6, 1986 in Paso Robles, CA Dylan and The Heartbreakers played “Brownsville Girl”. I got a sort of anxiety attack knowing that this existed, and then dutifully tracked it down on a bootleg of Dylan live rarities. I since found that it exists on YouTube. Here it is:
Isn’t that just the saddest thing ever? I almost cried. He omits not just a verse or two, but ALL SEVENTEEN VERSES! It’s just the chorus, chanted over and over. Heartbreaking.
Recently my sister-in-law forwarded me an article from the Telegraph. It is a provocative piece that argues that based on only his 1980s output Bob Dylan would still be one of the greatest singer-songwriters ever. A gutsy argument, and one that I can find some sympathy for. The writer, Neil McCormick, picks the ten best Dylan songs from the decade: “Every Grain of Sand”, “Dark Eyes”, “Series of Dreams”. No arguments from me. But he omits “Brownsville Girl”. It is astonishing. I feel like it invalidates everything else that he writes in the article.
For me, “Brownsville Girl” has everything that I love about Dylan all in one song, and even the things that I don’t love about Dylan I love when they’re in this song. It shouldn’t work. It’s an eleven minute epic about lost love and Gregor Peck. With horns. And yet, I think it sums up every single thing that I care about when I care about Dylan, from the Guthrie references, to the vivid imagery, to the vaguely potent philosophical sentiments. His vocal performance is powerful and grows stronger with every minute.
The best Bob Dylan song ever? Could be.